Nala was the king of Nishadha, and is said to be the most handsome man in the world. He is also learned in Vedas, knows the art of charioteering, and is a brave warrior. In short, he’s a very virtuous king.
Bhima is the king of Gandharvas, and he has a daughter named Damayanti who is said to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and she is also virtuous in every way.
Nala and Damayanti have heard about each other and are curious about the other’s beauty, but they have never seen each other before. Even so, Nala is interested in meeting Damayanti and marrying her.
One day when Nala was in the forest, he saw a group of swans with golden wings, and intrigued by their beauty gave chase and captured one of them. The swan then spoke to him in human voice, and told him that if Nala spared his life, she will go to Damayanti and tell him about Nala’s virtues and with that promise Nala let her go.
Then the swan ascended the skies with his friends, and went to the forest where Damayanti was playing with her friends, and seeing the swans, Damayanti and her friends started giving them chase. The swans split into different directions, and the one who had promised Nala led Damayanti to a certain direction and when they were isolated, the swan spoke to her about the king Nala and Damayanti fell in love with him, and told the swan to tell Nala that she feels the same way for him as he does for her.
She was lovesick after this and her father, the king decided to organize a Swayamvara knowing that the time has come for his daughter to get married. The swan in the meantime conveyed what had happened to Nala and he was immensely happy.
On hearing the news of the swayamvara, Nala prepared to go to the palace, and win her over.
At about this time, Narada went into Indra’s assembly and Indra asked him why he hasn’t seen any kings pray to him and visit his assembly lately. Narada told him about Damayanti’s swayamvara, and Indra, Varuna, Yama and Agni decided they will attend the swayamvara as well.
On their way to the palace they saw King Nala and they stopped mesmerized by his good looks, and asked him who he was, and then told him about themselves, and told him to go to Damayanti and tell her that the four gods are coming to her swayamvara and she should choose one among them.
Nala was sad about this but he couldn’t refuse the gods, and went to visit Damayanti and told her what the gods had said and asked her to choose one of them. Damayanti had not seen him before but at once recognized him, and told him that she loved him, and couldn’t marry another person.
He told her that if she forsake the gods for him, that would be a great sin and will bring death to him. She said that let everyone come to the swayamvara and she will choose him in presence of the gods and in this way there will be no sin.
He recounted all of this to the gods, and then let them decide what they wanted to do. On the day of the swayamvara, Nala went into the palace, and Damayanti was delighted to see him, but she was greatly surprised to see there were not one but five Nalas. The gods had taken the form of Nala and went to the palace as him.
When Damayanti saw five Nalas, she thought to herself that there are signs on the gods that can be used to distinguish them from humans, but when they descend to earth they hide such signs. Thinking this, she prayed to the gods in her mind and said that she fell in love with Nala because of what the swan said, and that she is pure of mind and this is what the gods must have willed themselves, and if it is so then reveal the signs to her.
The gods on hearing her silent prayers became satisfied that her love is pure, and revealed their signs to her. Then she saw that four of the Nala’s feet were not touching the ground, neither were their eyes blinking. She also noticed that their garlands were untouched by dust and they weren’t perspiring. Then she looked at the real Nala and saw that his feet touched the ground, he was perspiring, his eyes blinked, his garland was dusty, and he had a shadow as well. In this way, she was able to identify Nala, and chose him to be her husband.
The gods were pleased, and gave eight boons to Nala, and returned to their heavenly abodes.
When they were returning to their abodes they met Kali and Dvapara on the way. Kali is the personification of the Kaliyuga, not to be confused with goddess Kali, and Dvapara is the impersonification of Dvaparayga, the third yuga in the four yuga Hindu cycle.
Kali told the gods that he was going to Damayanti’s swayamvara but he was told that the swayamvara is already over and she has chosen Nala as her husband.
He asked them how she could choose a human as her husband when there were gods present, and they said she has done so with their sanction, and Nala has great qualities and if Kali tries to curse him, and harrass him Kali himself will suffer. They said this and left, and after this Kali told Dvapara that I’m filled with rage, and I am going to enter into Nala’s body, and destroy him by making him gamble and play dice. He asked for Dvapara’s help for this, and an interesting aside here is that Dvapara also means the side of dice with two points. Kali is the side with one point, treta with three points, and satya or krita with four points. So, you can see that one leg of dharma was getting detroyed in each subsequent yuga, and the sides indicate how many legs the cow of dharma is standing on in that yuga.
Back to the main story, Kali went into Nishadha and waited for an opportunity to get into Nala’s body. He would get this opportunity if Nala did something wrong, and one day he peed and performed his pujas without washing his feet. At this, Kali got his chance and entered Nala’s body.
He then went to Pushkara, Nala’s brother and told him to challenge his brother to play dice with him, and Kali would defeat Nala by misguiding him.
Sure enough, a very Pandava – Kaurava type thing happens, and Nala is losing in dice to his brother. The difference is that this game goes on for months, and he is gradually losing things. Damayanti sees this and asks his charioteer Varshneya to go to the kingdom of Kundina and then be free to go wherever he wants. He was sad and does what he tolds, and then finds himself in employment of King Rituparna of Ayodhya (this has later significance in the story).
The other difference is that Nala doesn’t lose himself or Damayanti, just his kingdom and riches. At the end of the gambling, he takes off all his clothes and ornaments except for a single robe and goes out of the city and lives under a tree for three days. Damayanti too follows him and she too wears only a single robe to suffer the same fate as her husband.
He survives on only water for three days and then he sees birds with golden plumage in the sky and thinks to himself that these birds will be my food and their plumage will be my riches, and thus gives chase to the bird.
The birds however stole his single garment and flew towards the sky. They mocked him saying they were the dice in disguise and were not content that he has even a single garment left, and came to steal that from him and having taken that they flew away, and left Nala all ashamed and embarrassed of himself.
Thus he started talking to Damayanti and pointed the direction towards Vidharbha which was her home and told her how to get there. But Damayanti insisted that she won’t abandon him, and the thought of abandoning her shouldn’t cross his mind either because that will be very wrong of a dutiful husband. Nala assures her that he won’t do that and at this point there is an exchange between them on how in times of distress a wife is the best medicine for husband. She also tells him that both of them can go and live in her father’s house in Vidharbha but he tells her that he is too embarrassed to do that.
They spoke thus, and tired and fatigued came to a public dwelling house where Damayanti slept on the floor but Nala couldn’t fall asleep. He constantly thought of his misfortune and more than that the misfortune he has brought upon Damayanti and thought about whether it would be better for him to kill himself or desert her, he thought that if he deserted her then she might go to her relative’s houses and live a better life, but with him it was certain that she would face more misfortune. Thinking this he sliced off half her garment because he himself was naked, and then wore that and left with that. However, after a little while he returned to look at her still asleep and was even more distressed thinking how she would survive in this forest full of hunters and predators alone. But then he was driven away by Kali again. Thus he returned many times driven by his love, but Kali over-powered him every time, and he returned back away from her and finally deserted her.
When Damayanti awoke she was in shock, and grieved badly, she was terrified and was not only sad for herself but also sad about how Nala would survive without her. In her grief she cursed whomever had put a curse on Nala and made him do such evil things because she was sure that he wouldn’t do such a thing himself. Then she roamed the forest, and happened to come into a place where an ajgara or python or boa constrictor was present, and the snake got hold of her and was going to devour her. However, a hunter came in there and killed the snake and freed her. But the hunter was overcome with desire looking at how beautiful she was and seeing this Damayanti was overcome with rage, and cursed him and he was burned to the ground.
Then Damayanti roamed the forest again and came to a sacred peak and asked him about the whereabouts of Nala but he didn’t answer. Then she moved forward and came to a hermitage and asked them about Nala and the ascetics told her not to lament. Having said this, the ascetics along with their hermitage disappeared and Damayanti was amazed and wondered if she was dreaming or if this really happened and then she started wandering the forest again.
At this point she came across an Ashoka tree and asked him the same questions, and asked him to take away her sorrow. Interesting aside here is that Ashoka literally means without shoka or sorrow and is so named because it takes away the sorrow of one who looks at it and that is why it is thus named.
The Ashoka tree gave her no response either and she kept wandering and reached a caravan. By this time her hair was so dirty, and dishevelled she herself looked like she was either a rakshasi or a yakshi which means a demon and the leader of the caravan asked her who she was and asked her to protect the caravan thinking that she was not human. She told her that she was just human and so saying she joined the caravan and traveled with them to the kingdom of Chedi. In the night, a herd of elephants trampled and killed a lot of the men and women of this caravan and she lamented thinking she had brought about this misfortune to them and she wondered why she was so unfortunate and what she had done to suffer such a bad fate. However, she had no answers, and then she followed some brahmans who had survived and reached the city of Chedi. There the queen took her in and she started living with the queen.
On the other hand, Nala was roaming the forest and heard a voice calling out his name from a great fire, the voice was calling out to him to come and help him. Nala had a boon due to which he couldn’t be burned, and thus he entered the fire and saw that a serpent was burning in the middle of that fire. That serpent was Karkotaka and told Nala that he had bitten a brahmarishi who had cursed him and because of this curse he wasn’t able to move an inch and asked Nala to take him out of the fire, and then he would help Nala. Then the snake became as small as a thumb, and Nala took him and walked outside the fire. The snake then asked him to take ten steps, and as Nala walked ten paces, the snake came and bit him. At this, Nala became deformed, dwarfed and ugly. He was shocked to see this but the snake assured him that this is for his own welfare and that the venom won’t affect him but the being who has possessed him will continue to hurt till the time he is inside him. He further instructed Nala to go to the kingdom of Ayodhya and meet king Rituparna and exchange his knowledge of horses for his knowledge of dice and then his knowledge would be complete and he would then be able to reunite with his wife and get his kingdom back. He told Nala that when he wants to get his old form back he should wear two divine garments that the snake gave him and think about him and the snake would return and give him his form back.
The king did as told and went to Ayodhya and became a cook and charioteer for King Rituparna.
King Bhima, Damayanti’s father gave riches to brahmans and asked them to go find Nala and Damayanti. He promised a thousand cows and one village the size of a city to whomever brought them back. Even if they were only discovered, he would give them riches equal to ten thousand cows.
A brahman named Sudeva found Damayanti in Chedi and although she was covered with dirt and had become thin, he still recognized ‘the dark one with round breasts’.
He approaches the queen with whom Damayanti is living and tells her who she really is. He tells her that there is a natural mark shaped like the lotus on her forehead but which is covered now with a cake of dirt. They clean the dirt and discover the mark. She then went to Vidarbha with Sudama.
There she reunited with her family and told her mother that she was very unhappy without Nala. So, they assembled brahmans and Damayanti asked them to go in all directions and say where are you o king who deserted your wife and left with half her garment.
The brahmans did as they were asked and one of them returned to Damayanti to tell her that a deformed man with short arms in Ayodhya under Rituparna replied to him and said that the dark one should not be angry.
On hearing this Damayanti goes to her mother and tells her that she secretly wishes to employ the service of Sudeva and send him to Ayodhya.
She told Sudeva to go to king Rituparna and tell him that Damayanti has decided to get married again and having computed the time this will happen tomorrow. She said that it’s not known whether King Nala is alive or dead and that’s why this decision has been taken.
Having heard this king Rituparna asked Bahuka if it’s possible to reach Vidarbha in a single day.
Interesting to note that these places have all existed historically for at least three to four thousand years. Nishadha mountain ranges are somewhere west of Kandahar in Afghanistan, Ayodhya is present Ayodhya and Vidarbha is just South of Madhya Pradesh.
Bahuka was troubled hearing this and couldn’t believe what he was hearing so he too wanted to go to this swayamvara and told King Rituparna it could be done.
He chose four lean horses and Rituparna was doubtful that they would be able to traverse the distance but he agreed and Bahuka asked Varshneya (his old charioteer) to join their journey and thus they set off for Vidarbha. They started going with the speed of wind and the king Rituparna was very impressed.
During their journey they came across a tree and Rituparna told Bahuka not everyone knows everything, now witness my great prowess of counting. He told him that the number of leaves and fruits still on the tree are more than the number fallen down by hundred and one. Those two branches have fifty million leaves and their fruits equal 2,095.
On hearing this unbelievable number Nala said I’ll count this myself and find out if it’s true but Rituparna said it will take too long and objected. But Nala was adamant and also confident that he’ll reach in time. So he got down, cut the tree, counted the leaves and fruits and saw that everything was correct. Rituparna told him that he’s skilled in dice and in counting. Nala said that he will give him the knowledge of horses if he gave him the knowledge of dice.
At this Rituparna gave him the knowledge of counting but said he’ll take the knowledge of horses at a later time because they are in a hurry.
When Nala acquired the knowledge Kali emerged out of his body and was vomiting Kartoka’s virulent poison. He was invisible to others but he told Nala that because of Damayanti’s curse he has been suffering inside.
Nala now continued his journey and their chariot reached the city where it made such a thunderous sound that the peacocks and the elephants thought it was going to rain. Nala‘s old horses thought he had returned and so did Damayanti.
When Rituparna reached the city, he saw that there was no swayamvara and decided not to mention it to king Bhima.
Damayanti was surprised to see that there is no Nala and wondered if he gave his skill to Varshneya. But then she suspected that the deformed Bahuka is actually Nala. She sent her lady messenger Keshini to him and they had a conversation in which Bahuka finds out that there’s actually no swayamvara and is overcome with grief to know the real reason that Damayanti sent the news, which is to get him there. He weeps but doesn’t disclose who he is.
Then Damayanti instructs Keshini to observe him carefully and put obstructions in whatever he’s doing.
She observes and reports back that on encountering a low passage, he never lowers his head but the passage rises, fire doesn’t burn him and flowers become fresher in his hands. On hearing that she gets convinced that this is Nala and instructs Keshini to bring back some meat cooked by him.
After tasting the food Damayanti was sure that this is Nala and sent Keshini with his children to him. He starts weeping at their sight and then she asked him to be brought to her. When he was brought to her she asked why Nala had abandoned him and he told her about Kali and said that now he has been vanquished because of her curse and his austerities and it’s time to be reunited again. Thus he wore the divine garments, thought of the serpent who gave him his old form. They both embraced each other, returned to his kingdom and lived happily and in prosperity.